The Forest Garden Design

(Discover what a Forest Garden is and get more info here)

The aim the TTPermatuin forest garden is to illustrate a food forest system which can be implemented at garden scale in a Northern European climate. The area used for this garden already contained several small fruit trees and a mix of fruit bushes at the edge of oak woodland. The ground was covered with invasive couch grass (Elymus repens) which the previous tenants had controlled somewhat by weeding and growing geranium species around the base of the berry bushes to avoid the grass choking them. Of the row of 4 fruit trees – one was dead and none had been seen to bear a crop; only a peach tree standing alone to one side was known to be productive. All were growing at the top of a sandy slope, on a soil type which is not naturally suited to fruit trees since it is slightly acid and has little or no topsoil.

The success of the peach was an important clue to improving the conditions for the other struggling fruit trees. On closer inspection it was down-slope of sheltering woodland and the compost/manure heaps, it benefitted from the overflow from the tool shed water-barrels which also shaded its base in summer time. Taking time to see why this fruit tree was thriving while the others weren’t was part of the process of designing the area anew whilst making use of already established plant infrastructure.

The garden’s design was influenced by the boundaries, sloping land, sun directions, and soil type. It used the trees and bushes as the structural ‘bones’, with under-planting coming later to a specified planting plan. The major changes from the linear planting in the previous area were:

  • redistribution of some of the berry bushes,
  • cardboard mulching and levelling of the ground by
  • adding topsoil, and
  • fruit-hedge following the contour.

The design provides fruit, cooking and salad greens, herbs, root vegetables, and flowers for consumption; many more products are possible but due to its small size and situation the TTPermatuin demonstration Forest Garden is fairly simple and easy to replicate. At this stage we have little knowledge of how much produce each plant will provide in such a system, one of the aims of TTPermatuin is to determine how productive different growing techniques can be. A forest garden is a perennial system and its plants take a while to become established, it will be several years before they come ‘on-line’ for cropping. At the TTPermatuin the fruit trees and berry bushes are established, so the maturation of the herbaceous layer and learning to manage it effectively are the relevant time factors. The rough estimate is 4 years from start:

  1. 2011 – tree and shrub layer, seeding soil improving plants;
  2. 2012 – planting the majority of productive perennials
  3. 2013 – a maturing phase with the first trials of when and how to crop all the new plants most effectively;
  4. 2014 – the first productive cycle which can indicate possible productivity and biodiversity levels for the system

Forest gardens take time to establish and like naturally occurring eco-systems they will self-regulate depending on the weather conditions etc. In this case the humans may make changes such as adding and removing plants. Patience and observation are key skills in forest gardening, but stability, low maintenance, and high potential benefit to local fauna make this a rewarding production method in the long term.

N.B. For anyone wishing to use forest gardening as a technique on allotments which allow trees we would recommend a slightly more formal use of the principles, for example using low espalier or cordon fruit trees several metres from any shared plot boundaries (ideally with branches aligned north-south to give minimum shadow), with underplanting of berry bushes, and perennials that prefer full sun. There are mutually beneficial written and unwritten allotment rules which should be respected to ensure that no-one shades their neighbour’s crops, or invades their root-zone. On our site the existing trees could be designed as an extension of the existing woodland edge, the trees did not shade anyone’s plot, and root-zones were within the Forest Garden boundary.

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